A Christmas Day blog calls for something seasonal, and our last visit to the Christmas markets in central and eastern Europe seems to fit the bill. The main market that we visited was in Vienna, Austria, but we also saw some in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
It was bitterly cold with snow everywhere when we landed in Vienna. After checking in at the Vienna Hilton we made our way to Rathausplatz where Austria’s largest Christmas market is held. The market attracts three million people each year in normal times and typically includes 150 unique stalls that offer traditional Austrian foods, Christmas decorations and ornaments, handicrafts, and drinks including Glühwein – hot mulled wine, with or without a shot of brandy – or Eierpunsch, an egg-based warm alcoholic drink. The following photos say more about the atmosphere than I could.
Although European Christmas markets are strongly associated with Germany, it is in fact Austria that features prominently in the history of the event. The precursor to Christmas markets is thought to be Vienna’s Dezembermarkt, dating back to around 1296. Emperor Albrecht I granted shopkeepers the rights to hold a market for a day or two in early winter so that townspeople could stock up on supplies to last through the cold months. Wintermärkte began to spring up all over Europe.
Over time, local families started setting up stalls to sell baskets, toys, and woodcarvings alongside others selling almonds, roasted chestnuts, and gingerbread. These were often bought as gifts to give away at Christmas.
It was the winter markets that eventually became known as Christmas Markets, the earliest of which are claimed to have been in Germany: Munich in around 1310, Bautzen in 1384, and Frankfurt in 1393. But Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt may have been the first real Christmas Market, dating from 1434.
Today during the four-week Advent period leading up to Christmas, almost any town of moderate size in the German-speaking world has at least one Christmas market. Larger cities usually have many, with Berlin boasting 70 or more at last count. Some markets open as early as mid-November.
Here are some random shots of Vienna at its winter best:
Strauss monument at Stadtpark.
Schonbrunn Palace (above) and Hofburg Palace (below).
From Vienna we travelled on to Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Bratislava and Budapest, but they are each worth a story of their own – not necessarily related to Christmas – and I’ll save those for another day.
The Vienna markets were by far the most impressive of those we saw, but the one in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, wasn’t bad and following are a few photos from it.
Cumil the sewer worker, one of Bratislava's most famous statues.
Many of the markets were cancelled last year and, sadly some have been cancelled or curtailed this year as well. Usually there are Christmas markets held in Western Europe too and in other countries including the UK and US. If you are lucky enough to have them, I hope they’re going ahead as planned.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Photos © Judy Barford